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The Sting of Shyness

Do kids get teased simply for being quiet?

Do kids get teased simply for being quiet? The answer to this question is unfortunately, but undoubtedly, yes. Many people with a history of painful shyness or social anxiety disorder recall a specific traumatic event associated with the beginning of their problems. A study conducted in 1985 by professor Lars-Goran Ost at Stockholm University found that 58 percent of people with social anxiety disorder attributed the onset of their problems to a traumatic experience. Other studies have replicated these findings. One client I worked with, Paul, fits this pattern well.

When Paul described the history of his social anxiety, he traced his fears to an event that happened in 5th grade. Once when he wasn’t paying attention in class, the teacher called on him to read aloud. He didn’t know where they were in the story, so he guessed. When the whole class erupted in laughter, he knew he’d made a mistake. The girl in the desk behind him whispered where to begin reading, but by this time, he was completely embarrassed — there was no way he could gain his composure. He tried to read, but he choked and mispronounced some words.

The next day, he paid closer attention. When he was called on to read, his throat tightened and his mouth felt like it was full of cotton. He asked to be excused to get a drink of water. While in the hallway, he heard laughing. He assumed the kids were making fun of him. From that point on, Paul was afraid to read out loud. He worried so much about losing his place, he often had trouble concentrating. He continued to experience the sensation of choking. He tried clearing his throat, but it didn’t help. Before long, his fear of reading grew into a fear of speaking to the class at other times. Several weeks later, before giving an oral report, Paul felt so sick he went into the bathroom and vomited.

Another type of traumatic experience I’ve sadly heard way too much about is bullying. Leslie remembers being shy but not at all unhappy during elementary school. She had several friends and did well academically. In middle school, however, things began to change. A number of “tough kids” who had gone to different grade schools began teasing her and bullying her. They said things like, “Why are you so shy?” and “Don’t you know how to talk, little baby?”

Leslie didn’t know how to defend herself. Despite feeling angry inside, she couldn’t speak. She’d heard rumors that these were the kind of kids who would beat you up in the bathroom if you simply looked at them the wrong way. Leslie tried to become invisible, so that others wouldn’t notice her or pick on her. Unfortunately, the more she tried to avoid these bullies, the more they sought her out. Leslie later articulated that they must have perceived her as vulnerable — an easy target. She believes her shyness might not have developed into an anxiety disorder if it hadn’t been for those negative experiences that year.

For Paul and Leslie, a specific few events or a discrete period of time stand out in their minds as being significant. For other people, though, a series of smaller experiences can “prime the pump” for social anxiety to develop at a later point.

What can you do if you're a parent of a quiet child and you learn that he or she is being teased or bullied? Here are some guidelines that may help:

▪ Let your child know she should tell you if someone is bothering her at school. Sometimes kids are afraid to let someone know they’re being bullied for fear of retaliation. Also, they may feel ashamed and embarrassed.

▪ Reassure your child that you will work with him to improve the situation. It’s not his fault, and it’s not going to continue forever.

▪ Many experts suggest that ignoring a bully is one way to handle the situation. Bullies thrive on getting a reaction from their victim, so the less your child acts like the bully bothers him, in theory the better off she’ll be. Keep in mind, though, it’s asking a lot of a child to ignore someone who’s being blatantly rude, and some bullies may not stop their bad behavior even if they’re ignored.

▪ Help your child project an image of confidence. Tell her that holding her head up high and making eye-contact will make her look less appealing to a bully.

▪ Sometimes agreeing with the bully is all that’s needed to diffuse the situation. If your child is called “four-eyes” for wearing glasses, help him rehearse saying something like, “Yeah, you’re right. I wish my eyes were as perfect as yours, but they’re not.”

▪ Tell your child to look for opportunities to be nice to the bully. For example, approach her first and ask her what she did over the weekend.

▪ Encourage your child to “hang out” with others. Kids are often bullied when they are by themselves. Bullies are less likely to approach a group of kids.

▪ Do not instruct your child to fight the bully. Fighting back not only satisfies the bully, it can also be dangerous.

If these tips don’t help improve the situation, talk with school personnel and enlist their help. Often times they’re not aware of the situation. Once they know what’s going on, they can observe more closely and intervene when necessary.

And hopefully, we're entering into a new era (Thank you Susan Cain — New York Times bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won't Stop Talking) when being quiet won't be seen as a bad thing. And, even more, I look forward to the day when quiet kids are recognized for their inherent strengths.

Shyness is nice and
shyness can stop you
from doing all the things in life
you’d like to.

–Ask, by The Smiths (Read how we named our blog.)

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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice.

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